Uganda is edging closer to eliminating onchocerciasis or river blindness, a disease that can lead to permanent blindness if left untreated, but more effort from South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo will be crucial in preventing cross-border transmission.
The long running conflicts in the two countries have made it difficult for the disease to be controlled over the years, according to Dr Edridah Muheki, chairperson of the Uganda Onchocerciasis Elimination Expert Advisory Committee.
“The Uganda programme has been active for a long time and we are headed for elimination of the disease. However, South Sudan and DR Congo have not had stable programmes, which affect the progress we make in Uganda. This is why we are now undertaking cross-border collaborations to manage the disease,” said Dr Muheki.
Because of the conflicts in the two countries, no study has been done to establish the prevalence of river blindness, although according to Dr Muheki, it remains a public health challenge.
She added that the Uganda onchocerciasis committee is currently working with the WHO and the two countries to undertake a mapping exercise, aimed at establishing first the prevalence of the disease and then carrying out mass drug administration in the endemic areas.
Dr Yonas Tegegn Woldemariam, the Uganda country representative for WHO said cross-border transmission remains a threat to the country’s elimination efforts and should be addressed the same way as polio and Guinea worm disease.
In Uganda, 18 out of the 39 districts where river blindness was endemic have eliminated it completely. Most of these districts are located close to water bodies.
“We have protected up to 1.9 million people in districts where elimination has taken place. The remaining districts have been a challenge because they border South Sudan and DRC,” said Health Minister Dr Ruth Aceng.
“So efforts are being made so that programmes on the other sides work with Uganda to synchronise efforts and reduce the burden and eventually eliminate river blindness,” Dr Aceng added.
River blindness is caused by the bite of the black fly, which is found in fast-flowing streams and rivers and cool forests, and more than 90 per cent of potential victims are on the African continent.